“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” — Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher.
No one enjoys criticism, but sometimes we need it. No matter where you stand in an organizational hierarchy, you can always improve your game. While many of us claim we’re our own harshest critics, that’s rarely true. It’s usually more helpful to have someone else point out our flaws…if you trust the source.
Criticism can be difficult to hear, but pain helps us learn and improve ourselves. As former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once stated, criticism is necessary because, like physical pain, “it calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Once we feel that pain, we can take measures to correct it.
As a leader, you’ve probably received more than your share of criticism. I know I have! My audience members frequently complete evaluations after my talks, and I receive many suggestions weekly. Some of these I can dismiss; if someone obviously means it to be destructive, consider the source and move on. But when people you respect (and who respect you) take the time to lay out what they perceive as your weaknesses, listen. They’re almost always trying to help you become a better person and a more skilled worker. If you have any doubts about what they’ve said, seek a second opinion from someone else you trust who knows you well.
I recommend these tips for accepting and acting on constructive criticism:
1. Shut up and listen. Calmly absorb the criticism, and think hard about what the critic has to say. Don’t interrupt with excuses or denials, and never try to scapegoat someone else. In fact, choke down all defensive reactions, refusing to let your emotions get the better of you. Feedback of any kind is incredibly useful, and you need it in order to improve your performance. Think back on it, and you’ll realize your entire childhood and school career—from Kindergarten on through grad school—was a constant back-and-forth session of criticism, feedback, and self-improvement.
2. Accept the criticism graciously. Even if you disagree with your critics, don’t react negatively. Thank them for their feedback and consider it. You may ultimately decide the criticism has no merit, but don’t just dismiss it out of hand. Some may be right on the money.
I know an editor who not only helps writers improve their books through copyediting, but also provides manuscript evaluations, pointing out strengths and weaknesses in characters, plot, and story. He tries not to pull any punches during his critiques, believing that to do so would be a disservice to the writers. Nearly all the writers respond positively, rewriting to match his suggestions.
3. Ask for specifics. If people offer an offhand bit of criticism, don’t dismiss it or obsess about what they might mean. Just ask for a specific example, and if you think it might help, ask what they suggest you do about it.
4. Take corrective action. Whether it involves signing up for an advanced English composition class to improve your writing skills, or learning to use Oracle to take your skill-set to the next level, do whatever it takes to move to the next level. Often your organization will help you with the cost; but if it doesn’t, do it on your own dime.
5. Follow up. You may need to speak to your critic again at some point (either before or after your corrective action) to expand upon the original criticism and where you need to go from there. Take a deep breath and schedule a meeting. Then, once you’ve taken action to correct the criticism and sufficient time has passed, follow up again to determine whether your performance has improved eyes. I particularly recommend this step if the critic is your supervisor.
No Pain, No Gain
If life were always a bed of roses, we’d never get up and try to improve ourselves. Sometimes you have to deal with the thorns; ironically, the pain they cause will stimulate you to grow as a person. So listen and act on constructive criticism. Even when you’ve fixed the problem, focus on continuing to improve. Eventually, you’ll get so good at what you do that you’ll never need to worry about that particular task or topic again, as long as you commit to maintaining high standards of performance. Then you can go on to the next thing you want to fix…because there will always be a next thing.
How has constructive criticism shaped your career? Please tell us your story in the Comments section.